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Virginia dairies tank; some farmers change to survive

Virginia dairies tank; some farmers change to survive

RICHMOND—The number of dairy farms in Virginia continues to rapidly decline. But some remaining farmers are finding ways to either lower costs or increase their dairy cows’ production.

In the summer of 2017 there were about 650 Grade-A dairy farms in the state. Now there are fewer than 500.

As of April 23, there were 488 Grade A dairies, noted Hunter Moyer, dairy program manager for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which issues dairy permits. The Grade A dairy permits are for the milk consumers purchase in the grocery store.

“We had three dairies cancel their permit last week, and another three have sold their milking cows,” shared Moyer. “Normally, these producers do not ever come back into production.”

Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, noted that while the number of dairies fluctuates, “the trend is a net loss.

“Last year dairy farmers were hopeful that milk prices would increase, but the trade issues with Canada, China and Mexico stalled any price resurgence. Experts are predicting dairy prices will increase later this year, but it’s a little too late for many dairy farmers,” Banks explained.

Despite the downturn, there are Virginia dairy operators who are expanding their herds’ size or working to increase efficiencies on their farms.

“Farmers staying in the business are looking for ways to lower production costs and postponing equipment purchases until they can get through this time of declining prices,” Banks noted.

Rena Johnson, a third-generation dairy farmer in Washington County, is finding ways to stay in the business. She and her parents and brother-in-law milk about 550 cows at Highland Dairy. They installed a state-of-the-art commercial milking parlor in January.

“With this parlor, we can milk our cows three times a day instead of two, which is a must-have if we’re going to stay in business,” Johnson explained. “We’re maxed out on the number of cows we can milk, so we had to increase production, and this allows us to do that.”

She said dairy farmers are trying to cut costs as much as they can, but it can’t be at the expense of the herd’s health. Installing the new parlor was the solution for her family farm.

Banks said the worst part about the current dairy downward spiral is its duration. “Dairy prices have declined three different times since 2006, but this is the longest downturn we’ve had since then. And it came off a period of record-high milk prices; all that is gone.”

Johnson said that, despite the problems in the dairy business, she is hopeful. “I feel good that we can make it all work.”

Media: Contact Banks at 804-290-1114 or Johnson at 276-608-4728.